Money

Top 5 financial regrets ... and how to avoid (or move past) them

When was the last time you heard the phrase “no regrets”? Maybe it was accompanied by the acronym “YOLO,” or you saw it written in script on a sappy motivational poster.

It's time to get real. Most of us do have regrets — especially when it comes to our finances.

According to a new survey from Bankrate.com, 75 percent of Americans say they have financial regrets. Apparently, we’re the most remorseful when it comes to saving — especially for retirement, and after that, emergency expenses. The site reported 42 million Americans regret not starting their retirement saving earlier, and that those concerns increased with age. Millennials said they regretted excessive student loan debt most, with 24 percent of respondents under 30 listing it as their chief financial regret. Other top concerns included taking on too much credit card debt and not saving enough for a child's education.

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There are no do-overs in finances, unfortunately, but you can do better. Here are the top 5 financial regrets with suggestions for how to turn the situation around.

Retirement savings

If you’re feeling behind, you need to get on the automatic bandwagon. Saving by automatic contribution (a la a 401(k) or similar plan) works because you make a good decision one time and get to dine out on it for years.

Read More: Jean Chatzky's 3 ways to make your money last through retirement

If you're starting late, you need to aim to stash away 15 percent of your income (including matching contributions.) Not there yet? Ratchet your contributions up 2 percent a year until you hit that mark. Also look into catch-up contributions that allow you to contribute an extra $1,000 to an IRA or $6,000 to a 401(k) if you're 50 or over. Working longer can also help. The money in your retirement accounts can continue to grow, and when it comes to Social Security, you'll get an increase in benefits of about 8 percent per year (guaranteed) from age 62 until age 70.

Emergency expenses

“Everybody can start saving for those minor emergencies, because it’s not really a question of if, it’s just a question of when,” says Aron Szapiro, policy and finance expert at HelloWallet.com.

He’s right — it’s only a matter of time before a minor health expense or unexpected car maintenance comes into play, and the only way to prepare is to start saving. Let your first goal for your emergency fund be $2,000. Once you’re there, congratulations — you’re ahead of many Americans (63 percent of whom don’t have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency). Then, aim for three months’ worth of living expenses. You’re on your way to being ready for anything.

Credit card debt

Sit down with a notepad and make a list of everything you owe and — this is key — the interest rate for each debt. It’s usually a smart move to make paying off credit card debt your first priority, because it usually has the highest interest rates. Szapiro says there’s “something magical” about paying it down.

“If you have a really high interest rate of 18 percent or 20 percent, every dollar you put towards the credit card is a guaranteed return of 18 percent or 20 percent,” he says.

That’s a pretty significant return rate, and it’s risk-free.

(Note: There is one investment you can make that beats that credit card interest rate return — grabbing employer matching dollars offered in a retirement plan. If you have credit card debt and need to save for retirement, aim to do both simultaneously, even if you don't do either fully until the credit card debt is gone.)

Student loan debt

Although student loan debt is a top regret for many Americans, especially millennials, taking it on can be an investment in future salary and capital. Federal student loans tend to have low interest rates and sometimes have tax benefits, and there are forbearance options in the event of major financial difficulty.

You can also look into options to refinance your student loans at today's low interest rates (just know that doing so takes forbearance and other payment options off the table). However, don't prioritize paying off student loans over saving for your future. The latter will serve you better — especially if there are matching dollars in play.

Read More: Get your finances in order this spring with these 5 free apps

Saving for children’s education

Regrets for not saving are understandable — but because financial aid exists, you have to put retirement first. That said, a smart way to start is with a 529 plan, which in many states offers an immediate tax benefit. Some plans also offer the option to contribute small amounts of money (e.g., $25) every month or pay period (again, automatically) which adds up over time.

“There’s no one magic number. It’s not like saving for a down payment for a house or something where you have a specific goal, a specific time you want to do it,” says Szapiro. “It’s something where the more you save, the more options you’ll have.”

--- with Hayden Field

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